On Naivety and Homelessness

My recent backpacking trip had many high points: swimming in the Portuguese sea, enjoying wine in the sun, seeing the Notre Dame… Low points included missing trains, paying through the nose for last minute accommodation, living on crisps and running out of money. But by far the worst experience I had while abroad was seeing a woman and her two little boys living on the street in Paris.

Trying to hold back tears, I smiled weakly as my boyfriend asked me why I was suddenly so moody.
“Sorry honey, but I’m just a bit shocked to see two young children living on the street!”
Holding my hand, he replied “Tegan, they’re hardly the only ones”.
That didn’t really comfort me at all.

I’ve always thought homelessness is a big issue, and I hate the way people tend to ignore it, or assume homeless people are to blame for getting into ”that state”. Even if someone has an addiction, that hardly means they want to sleep on the pavement all year round! In the UK it’s a really big social problem, and I think the government should be doing more to deal with it.

In the town where I grew up there was a group of people locally dubbed ”the brew crew” or ”the bench crew” because they appeared to be homeless alcoholics who spent their days sitting on street benches drinking special brew or occasionally shouting at each other. But in over ten years, I never saw any of them sleeping on the street. They clearly had somewhere to go at night: a squat, a caravan, a friend’s sofa. So I was a bit shocked when I moved to the city and saw dozens of men and a few women sleeping in doorways in all weather.

I think that’s bad enough, but before this week I’d never seen homeless kids sleeping on the pavement. Actually, I was at first glance naive enough to assume this woman and her children were simply resting on their way somewhere. It wasn’t until a few moments later that the truth dawned on me. For a split second I looked into the eyes of this small boy who was calmly lying on his stomach on his mum’s sleeping bag, watching the Parisians and tourists stroll by. He wasn’t much older than my 3 year old brother.

As my boyfriend reminded me, I’m well aware there are plenty of kids living rough all around the world. But firstly, there’s a huge difference between knowing a sad statistic and seeing a real family living that life with your own eyes for the first time. Secondly, I didn’t expect to see it in a rich western country such as France.
I still have no idea why the Paris city council didn’t give that woman somewhere to live. Having two young children and nowhere to go should put you right to the top of any waiting list. The family looked Indian. Of course they could have been French citizens from Indian descent, or they could have recently moved to France. Either way, they still needed somewhere to live.

I think the sight was particularly shocking because it was in such a posh part of Paris. It was hardly a ghetto or a backstreet of New Deli. This family were surrounded by rich Parisian businesspeople sipping overpriced espresso.
My first feeling was bemusement as to why they thought the pavement was a good place to rest, then shock that actually they were clearly living there, then sadness that these little boys wouldn’t be able to fit in with ordinary kids they’re own age, and probably weren’t getting an education either. My next thought was disgust with all the rich onlookers – surely largely parents – who did nothing.
Then I quickly realised that I had myself walked past on my 3 hour trek to the Eifel Tower without helping them.

I felt sick.

 

5 thoughts on “On Naivety and Homelessness

  1. 3/4 of the big issue money is better than here, where I think they get half of the price paid. Still I prefer they sell the big issue than just beg.

    Not to discredit your post, however I think there are career beggers, particularly in Paris (I have lived in France). I know France has among the best social welfare systems in the world – with food stamps, accommodation, free healthcare etc. I wonder whether it was during the day time you saw her? I’m sorry to be a skeptic, but I know that beggers use children to pluck the heartstrings even more. Thankfully, you don’t have this happen in Australia (though there are women who beg, claiming to be pregnant…) What are your thoughts? Am I totally off the mark?

    1. It was during the day time, and I suppose you could be right… I just can’t imagine somebody would purposefully live on the street with their young children, especially if there were other options offered by welfare. Also she wasn’t asking passers by for money. I don’t know…

  2. Tegan, there was probably very little you could have done besides show the family that they weren’t in fact invisible, or maybe give them something to eat. It bothers me as well to see anyone especially children living on the streets. At one point I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, they had a program where the homeless pit out their own newspaper. It was chockfull of underground news you wouldn’t see or hear from mainstream media. The homeless then could sell these newspapers on the street corners and after paying a small amount to cover the printing the rest was saved in a secure place. When they earned a particular amount those running the program helped them to get an apartment and a Job. I looked forward to buying this paper weekly, and in addition would drop off blankets and small toys for the children at the shelter.

    What I liked best about this program was that it allowed those who were homeless to have a way to help themselves which I’d like to believe boosted their morale and feelings of self worth.

    1. That sounds like a great program! In the UK we have something similar, where homeless people can sell a magazine called ‘The Big Issue’ and they keep something like 3/4 of the money from each sale. I admire the concept – like you say – of empowering people to help themselves.. But sadly the scheme is often not that successful because the magazine used to be like 70p but now it’s the price of a normal magazine and I don’t think many people buy it, although I do when I see people selling it. In a similar vein, I have a lot of respect for buskers and always give them change.

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